Parshat Korach: A Priest, a Rabbi & an Imam walk into a classroom…

Years ago, I was on faculty at a major Canadian university, mostly in the Faculty of Education.  As my specialty is in Religious Studies, my degrees in the field of education made for a good fit with the Faculty of Education as Religious Studies Coordinator.  Essentially, I was advising and teaching student candidates on the verge of graduating and starting careers in teaching all aspects of religious studies.  I had the privilege of running seminars that always included students preparing to teach in various religious venues.  Some candidates were Jewish, many were Catholic, several were clergy, Muslim men and women enrolled, as well as a Zoroastrian principal–always a beautiful mix of age and faith expressions.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.  

There were times when some of the candidates presented a challenge for me in ways they could not possibly have known.  Since there were often clergy in the class, I could be sitting with students who were much older than I.  I found it difficult to demand work and penalize for lateness on assignments with someone who was clearly my elder.  I admit, at times eye contact was difficult when I was visually locked onto the priest’s collar or the nun’s wimple and veil.  In fact, there was a myriad of covered hair, covered heads, beards, modest outfits and all styles in between–a truly inspiring snapshot of multicultural faith communities.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.

We struggled with how anyone could teach religion at all, let alone in a structured school setting.  Teaching prayer is one thing, but how do you assign a grade?  Does the student get an ‘A’ in prayer if God answers (and God must answer so the teacher can hear, otherwise the student might have made up God’s answer…)–you can see how this could get complex quite quickly.  But there were brilliant moments of collaboration as well.  In group assignments, candidates would form groups of their own religions (I noticed they chose their groups that way), only to realize they didn’t have the resources they needed for the assignment.  I remember one wonderful moment when the room was buzzing with group activity at a low hum only to have one nun call out: ‘Could we get some Jewish help over here, we’re not sure how a yarmulke works!’

And then there was the missed moment.

One year, an older student approached me before class and asked if she could make an announcement to the class before we start.  I agreed and asked if she wanted to let me know what it was about and she said she’d rather surprise me.  This woman was a mature, somewhat shy, studious person and always respectful of everyone in the room.  I wasn’t the least nervous about taking this risk.  As everyone found their seats, she stood in front of the class and started crying as she shared with the class that she’s gay.  She said it was the first time in her life she’d ever said that out loud to anyone.  Oh, right…did I mention this woman was part of the Amish community?

Several students went to hug her and celebrate her moment.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  My confusion wasn’t about her sexual orientation, it was more about her choice of this class and this moment to come out.   I understood my role at the university as leading these student candidates to their graduation and leading them to their new career opportunities.  Nowhere in my job description as a professor did it include leading a student in the most intimate moments of her life.  I am a very private person and I try to strictly respect other people’s privacy which at times causes problems–this was one of those times.

She said she chose this moment because of the sharing everyone did about their faith and how she felt no one judged anyone.  She looked at me and smiled.  I approached her and hugged her, I wiped her tears but I did not celebrate with her.  I couldn’t push past my boundaries.  This was a seminar on teaching religion, a place to learn how to lead people into thoughtful and life-changing concepts, but I couldn’t lead her in this moment.  It was too private a revelation and I hit my wall of respecting privacy.  My wall was too big.

It’s all I can think about as I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Korach.  Moses is confronted with a challenge to his leadership.  His cousin, Korach, is gaining a following by saying that God is in the midst of the people and Korach is from the same family as Moses, so who does Moses think he is? The one attribute the Torah has told us time and again about Moses is that he is humble.  He can’t answer Korach, he ends up falling on his face in submission.

Korach is gaining popularity because at that moment it’s easy to believe Moses failed in his mission.  He led the people to the land of Israel but will not bring them in.  They are all destined to die in the desert, so maybe Moses just didn’t get the job done and it’s time to try different leadership.  What is forgotten is that getting everyone into Israel was never part of Moses’ job description–it was an expectation with no foundation.

At the burning bush, God commanded Moses to help get Israel out of Egypt and to Sinai.  He did that.  He was also told that all of Egypt should understand that God is a universal and unique Being.  The midrash says Moses did that as well.  Bringing the nation into the land was not on the list.

While at first glance it’s easy to be upset with Korach (after all he was trying to lead a rebellion against Moses), we should also consider that people have just been told they are going to die in the desert. Frankly, it would make sense that they believe Korach and that Moses has failed them as a leader. We shouldn’t be surprised that Korach acted the way he did, we should be surprised with Moses’ inability to face him. Moses, the man who stood up for a beaten slave, befriended God, survived Sinai and brought laws most of the world still lives by–this man couldn’t face a pushy cousin?

Moses’ humility kept him from saying anything and so God, Moses’ best friend, stepped in and took control.  Judaism is uncomfortable with extremes and extreme humility is no exception.  It becomes a limitation to Moses’ leadership.  This entire incident with Korach is a one time learning opportunity for Moses. It is a warning that should only happen once. Hopefully Moses can push past his limitations–push past his extreme humility–for future moments.

What do we takeaway? Not that we align with either Moses or Korach–we are not choosing sides since it’s obvious that Moses is the trusted leader. Korach’s mistake was that he remedied his dissatisfaction by pulling others toward destruction and doom–he is not the leader we seek. We continue to look towards Moses. We see that even leaders can be blind to their own boundaries and get in the way of connecting with those in their group. Moses’ limitation results in our growth. In this story, Moses is actually teaching us important lessons about leadership. Just as he was forced by God to learn from his experience, we are lucky to likewise learn from it. As a professor, I was blind to my own limitations, and this parsha helps me realize that I was missing unique, opportune moments with my students. 

My student kept in touch with me for a few years after.  She returned to her town but chose to live and teach in a school outside of her community.  She thanked me for the safe space and the good memory she holds of sharing her personal truth.  I feel good that she remembers it that way but I can’t ever think of it without remembering that I allowed my moment of confusion to overshadow her moment of authenticity.

We only see Moses’ limitation–his extreme humility–because it is mirrored by Korach’s extreme arrogance. LIkewise, I recognize being held back by my own boundaries because of my student’s bravery to break hers.  

I wonder how many other Moses/Korach moments pass us by.

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